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Gareth Baber
Baber (far left) has been Fiji’s sevens coach since January 2017

You can’t immediately see the similarities, but Gareth Baber feels them.

Llanelli, south Wales. A small town backing on to green hills and a history of heavy industry.

Fiji, South Pacific. An tropical archipelago of palms, white sand and a slower way of life.

Half the globe away, and a world of difference.

But Baber, the Welshman who arrived as Fiji’s sevens coach in January 2017, does not feel as far from home as all that.

“I spent a lot of time in Llanelli as a kid, in the pubs, playing pool, knocking about in the lanes outside,” he told BBC Sport.

“Since then I have toured the world with rugby, and being Fijian is as close to being Welsh as I have seen anywhere.

“It’s the closeness of faith, family, community and the game. And the rituals that surround it all.

“Here in Fiji, there is the kava ceremony [the ritual drinking of a crushed root tea], every day in some villages.

“That completes the same trinity of church, rugby and pub that I grew up on.

Gareth Baber
Baber’s playing career included stints with Pontypridd, Newport Gwent Dragons, Cardiff and Bristol

“We would go to pub on a Saturday, around 11:00, and then everyone in the community would watch Llanelli play at Stradey Park. After we would go back to my gran’s for dinner with more family. And then on Sunday we would go to church.

“That model is something I recognise here in Fiji. It makes me comfortable because it is something I have very fond memories of.”

But there are things in Fiji that are like nowhere else. And Baber is in charge of nurturing the most precious.

At Rio 2016, Fiji men’s sevens team won the first and only Olympic medal in the country’s history, clinching gold under the guidance of Baber’s predecessor Ben Ryan.

It seemed fitting. The sport’s first Olympic title going to the one country synonymous with sevens. The nation that plays the game like no other.

“Sevens in Fiji is played as differently by one team as any international sport I have seen,” Baber explained.

“You can hark back to Brazilian football teams of the 1970s or the great Australian cricket teams of the 1990s. Fijian rugby is as different and special as that.”

You do not need to have deep rugby roots to see it. In March 2020, before the sporting world ground to a halt, the team played in the world sevens series event in Los Angeles. Two moments summed up the beast and beauty of Fijian sevens.

Aminiasi Tuimaba landed a whiplash-inducing tackle on a Samoan opponent, before team-mate Sevuloni Mocenacagi threw an extraordinary one-handed no-look passexternal-link to set up a try.

They are Fiji’s crossover moments of sky-high skill and surging power. And in the Rio final, they proved far too much for Great Britain, beating them 43-7.

Even with windfall funding and a mantra of marginal gains, Team GB could not match Fiji. In fact maybe it was partly because of those apparent advantages that Fiji remained out of reach.

“I think Fiji’s style comes from socio-economic reasons, for geographical reasons,” explains Baber.

“There are fewer things that young men and women in Fiji have access to at the end of each day of schooling. It might be volleyball. That is huge in Fiji and some of those skills transfer into the rugby.

“But also if there is a patch of grass, every evening all the youths and seniors would play ‘village touch’. It could be 40-a-side, with makeshift posts made out of bamboo – I am not saying that in a romantic sense, that is exactly what you see.

“The game is the same all over the islands – high risk, high tempo, offloading, no real consequences for the ball going to ground.

“It’s very different from Britain. When it is soft underfoot you don’t mind going to ground. If it is wet and cold you go into contact rather than make that pass. Here in Fiji, if you go on the floor you might end up with a piece of stone or glass in your leg. So you play the game at a height, four or five foot rather than one foot.

“You develop your skills differently in that environment, learning and creating in an unstructured way, compared to being on a grass pitch with coaches either end telling you what to do.

“Then you add into that the athletic development. Kids farm alongside their parents, walk good distances to get to school, do chores at home in the evening before going out to play rugby. There are eight or nine-year-olds here in Fiji with the physique of a 17 or 18-year-old in a rugby academy in Britain.

“And, the way Fiji is, economically, culturally, I can’t see it changing for the next 30 or 40 years.”

Fiji’s players also have a unique mindset to go with the skillset.

Christianity is central to the nation’s public and personal life. For Baber, whose own Anglican faith began in south Wales, the players’ devotion poses challenges.

“The faith is so strong here,” he added.

“There is a fatalistic approach. You have faith that God will provide, and what will be will be decided by the Lord.

Fiji huddle after a game
Faith plays a large role in Fijian private and public life

“It means you can rationalise a performance and move on, but, initially you think, how do I bring accountability to that?

“You have to go through a process of explaining there has to be discipline and sacrifice to be able to do God’s work in front of the world.”

There has been plenty of discipline, sacrifice and tested faith over the past few months.

Fiji, surrounded by the ocean and little else, initially escaped the worst effects of Covid-19. As the first wave of the pandemic swept through Asia, Europe and North America, there were only a handful of cases.

By the end of March this year, there had been only two deaths linked to the virus.

However, the situation has changed dramatically. Cases have risen and deaths have followed. Charities working in the region say Fiji’s death toll of 59 among a 900,000-strong population means it has been hit harder, in relative terms, than India.

Baber’s players gathered together in early April at a Christian hostel in Suva just as the crisis escalated. They had expected to stay together for a one-week training camp.

They have not seen their families since. Instead they have been isolating together as the Games approach. With passenger flights to and from the islands grounded, they arrived in Tokyo aboard a cargo plane carrying frozen fish.

If they return with gold medals stowed away once more, there won’t be the scenes of 2016: the parade, the crowds, the parties and the ceremonies.external-link

“I would be lying if I said I hadn’t envisaged us winning it,” said Baber.

“I have to envisage us being in a situation where the players have played their best game ever in the final and taken the chance that God has given them.

“But I also have to plan around us losing it as well. Either of those scenarios involves us coming back here and quarantining in individual rooms in a hotel for two weeks.

“We have to do it for the greater good of the country.”

It may not be the same as their 2016 homecoming, but it will still be an expression of Fiji’s love of the game and their community. Values that, as Baber knows, spread far beyond the South Pacific.

Fiji team arrive at the national stadium in Suva in 2016
Fiji’s players were greeted by thousands on the streets and in the national stadium in Suva on their return from Rio 2016

Source: BBC

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